Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

America chilled to the bone

Polar air mass creates a rare deep freeze south of border

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- The deep freeze expected soon in the U.S. Midwest, northeastern New England states and even the South will be one to remember, with potential record-low temperatures heightening fears of frostbite and hypothermia.

It hasn't been this cold for decades -- 20 years in Washington, D.C., 18 years in Milwaukee, 15 in Missouri -- even in the Midwest, where bundling up is second nature. Weather Bell meteorologist Ryan Maue said, "If you're under 40 (years old), you've not seen this stuff before."

Preceded by snow in much of the Midwest, the frigid air will begin today and extend into early next week, funnelled as far south as the Gulf Coast. Blame it on a "polar vortex," as one meteorologist calls it, a counterclockwise-rotating pool of cold, dense air.

"It's just a large area of very cold air that comes down, forms over the North Pole or polar regions... usually stays in Canada, but this time it's going to come all the way into the eastern United States," said U.S. National Weather Service meteorologist Phillip Schumacher in Sioux Falls, S.D.

'If you're under 40 (years old), you've not seen this stuff before'

The forecasts are startling: -31 C in Fargo, N.D., -35 C in International Falls, Minn., and -26 C in Indianapolis and Chicago. At those temperatures, exposed skin can get frostbitten in minutes and hypothermia can quickly set in as wind chills may reach - 50 C.

Even wind chills of -30 C can do serious damage, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Scott Truett in St. Louis.

"Those are dangerous levels of wind chill," he said of the expected wind chill in Missouri at daybreak Monday. "A person not properly dressed could die easily in those conditions."

The South also will dip into temperatures rarely seen. By Monday morning, western and central Kentucky could hit -18 C -- "definitely record-breaking," said weather service meteorologist Christine Wielgos in Paducah, Ky. And in Atlanta, Tuesday's high is expected to hover around -4 C.

The arctic chill will affect everything from sports to schools to flights. Mike Duell, with the flight-tracking website FlightAware.com, says to expect airport delays and flight cancellations because of the cold temperatures.

"For some of them, they run into limitations on the aircraft. They're only certified to take off at temperatures so low, so if they get into a particular cold front, it can prevent them from being able to legally take off," he said. "In a lot of cases, it's just ice."

Today's National Football League playoff game in Green Bay could be among one of the coldest ever played -- a frigid -19 C when the Packers and San Francisco 49ers kick off at Lambeau Field. Medical experts suggest fans wear at least three layers and drink warm fluids -- not alcohol.

Minnesota has called off school Monday for the entire state -- the first such closing in 17 years.

Before the polar plunge, Earth was as close as it gets to the sun each year on Saturday. The planet orbits the sun in an oval and on average is about 149 million kilometres away. But every January, Earth is at perihelion, and on Saturday, it was only 147.1 million kilometres from the sun.

That proximity doesn't affect the planet's temperatures. Maue noted it's relatively uncommon to have such frigid air blanket so much of the U.S. -- maybe once a decade or every couple of decades.

At least 16 deaths were blamed on a snowstorm that swept across the eastern half of the U.S., including three people who officials said died at least partly because of the extreme cold.

The snowfall had all but stopped by Friday morning in the hard-hit Philadelphia-to-Boston corridor. The cold temperatures kept the snow light and powdery, preventing it from weighing down electrical lines or tree limbs. As a result, there were only a few thousand power outages in the Northeast.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2014 A3

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